Indigenous communities in the Wood Buffalo area are facing heightened feelings of isolation after closing themselves off to all non-essential traffic in March.
This strategy has already highlighted facts Indigenous leaders have raised for decades: access to a strong health care system, food security and stable housing needs improvement.
But after 10 months, community leaders are also witnessing the emotional and mental health toll that comes when a community isolates itself.
Since March, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says there has been an increase in young people in Fort Chipewyan that have died from alcohol abuse. To compare, no one in the community has died from COVID-19.
“We knew these things prior to the pandemic that were plaguing us,” said Adam. “We noticed there are a lot of social problems stemming from alcohol and the opioid crisis and things like that.”
To respond, Adam said ACFN is trying to bring recovery supports into the community, since it could take months before someone is accepted into a recovery program in Fort McMurray.
Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said leadership underestimated the toll health restrictions have taken on mental health. Community members are still supporting these restrictions, but Quintal said there is a "real fatigue" in Fort McKay.
Fort McKay and Fort McMurray are connected communities. In both areas, people work and visit friends and family. Many Fort McKay families send their children to school in Fort McMurray. Quintal said it has been difficult motivating people to follow physical distancing guidelines and remain in Fort McKay.
“The mental aspects of this is just as crippling as getting COVID itself,” said Quintal. “Mental health is going to be a key cornerstone in terms of our path forward.”
Chief Peter Powder of the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) said the community has faced these challenges for both on-reserve and off-reserve members.
MCFN has more off-reserve members than people in the community. Leadership has been challenged with providing support for people in Edmonton and other parts of Alberta who have lost their jobs. An Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) program has helped MCFN support struggling off-reserve members.
But Powder says financial support has been a small fix for struggling members. The impacts of isolation on mental health has been a larger hurdle.
“We get a lot of calls from people stressed out and needing money to help with their bills and education,” said Powder. “There’s lots of pressure on leadership for sure.”
Melissa Herman, a member of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation (CPFN), said the pandemic’s mental health impacts in Indigenous communities has been compounded with other issues.
The disappearance of Betty Ann Deltess in October 2018 and Ellie Herman in October 2019 is no longer a community focus, she said, as CPFN prioritizes their pandemic response.
“These are things no one is intentionally ignoring but because COVID is taking that manpower, you don’t always have that mental fuel you need,” said Herman.
Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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